In an era of guilt, marketers should strive to add value and not just by selling more product.


Watching the brilliant series Mad Men on DVD reminds me that there was a time when nobody felt bad about encouraging consumption, but how long has it been now? The past ten years have been an environmental guilt trip, and well before that anybody with half a sentient bone in their body was clued to the fact that there was something amiss selling ever greater volumes of products to people who need them less than ever before.

It seems we’ve hit some sort of awful sweet spot where everybody rich or poor desires, no, thinks they deserve, a five-star luxury lifestyle from the moment they are awoken by the Bose to the minute they lay down on the Egyptian sheets. OK guys, we did a great job, marketing has won.

How ironic that for many marketers, the victory has come at the cost of being able to look at ourselves in the mirror. Now, marketing professionals fall into three categories: too young to care, too greedy to care and, well, stuck in our career of original choice. (Note that in the context of this article I define marketing in the broadest sense, from product development to promotion).

When I started my marketing career I was  – as I now realise – lucky enough to work on two thoroughly worthy service sectors – the arts and public transport. I was seduced by this, never imagining I would later get sucked into a decade of marketing retailers.  I built my career but never fully comfortable.

We all know that marketing can be used as a tool for good – it’s been effectively and imaginatively deployed to promote educational and environmental campaigns and so on. An agency mate of mine was a founder of Earth Hour, which encourages everyone to turn off all power for an hour one day each year. It’s a slightly perplexing idea from an environmental point of view (being an utterly tokenistic salve to our greater guilt) but it’s caught on and is now an annual fixture spreading widely around the world. The marketing worked.

So we go do some pro-bono work for a good cause. And we’re all off the hook? Of course not – the overwhelmingly greater volume of marketing is unblinkingly about selling stuff and consuming stuff, good or bad. Whatever the consequences.

In our present day circumstances how can we possibly accept that without comment or debate? Of course marketing is a mere servant to the great free-market, materialistic system we’ve all built, but as they say, with freedom comes responsibility. Does marketing not have a responsibility to work within this system to contribute positively to our culture? In a way that adds value in some way.

The very best marketing does indeed contribute to the development of positive cultural ideas and values. It can add to popular debate. It can create beauty. It can challenge limiting or bigoted notions. Whilst selling. Marketers should all strive to this multi-tasking challenge.

Recently there was classic case of a bungled product launch here in Australia. Kraft Australia market an iconic 85 year-old foods spread called Vegemite, an iconic brand which every Ozzie kid knows. Kraft wanted to capitalise by introducing a sister product. They made two errors. For one thing, the name they selected was in their words “an ironic nod to the new generation”…….ispread.2.0.

Stupid, yes, but the deplorable part of this story lay in the product itself. In an era of child obesity, Kraft ignored original Vegemite’s position as a healthy breakfast spread full of vitamins and iron instead concocting a salty, cheesy spread, much higher in fat and much lower in nutrition. Hello! Here was the perfect opportunity to add to the product firmament with something we might both want and need (in a nutritional sense) but no…they went straight for the gut. Our kid’s guts.

Why? Because they have no idea. No idea in the creative sense and no idea in the sense that they don’t understand their responsibilities.

Yes, foisting our work upon the public brings all sorts of responsibilities. Because each of our products, images and ideas contributes to the common consciousness…each of these culture bots changes society a little, imperceptibly edging it forward or setting it back.

All our creative output, all our messaging and positioning goes into the psychological environment in the same way a product goes into the physical environment. There are lasting consequences to what we do, consequences to which we have given scant thought. Like the notion of manufacturers being held responsible for the environmental consequences of their products right through to their ultimate disposal and beyond, marketers too must consider the impact of their work beyond its immediate goals. And not just at the awards shows!

Understanding the consequences of our actions is a basic lesson we teach our children. We teach them about being thoughtful and responsible. Marketers responsibility starts with the client, at product conception and development, and ends with the agency that produces images and ideas. I’m talking about nappy marketers finding ways to sell nappies in a way that furthers the value society places on motherhood. I’m talking about phone companies helping their young targets to use social networking to develop more profound communication skills.

I’m angry with my profession for not having thought more about this, and with myself. We’ve all missed too many opportunities.

Let’s strive for creative sustainability, each of us finding some way to add value through each of our endeavours. Let’s release ideas that add to our world, not damage it. That change values, deliver beauty, amuse, arouse, inspire. Both clients and agencies must think harder, acting as one another’s consciences to restore marketing to a profession of sustainable value, despite – because of  – the pressures of our crumbling value systems and environmental.

Oh, by the way, ispread.2.0 met with a humiliating end. In an all too rare show of public good taste, the product was universally mocked, renamed, relaunched and largely ignored.

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